2 Kings 5:1–14; Psalm 30; Mark 1:40–45

One of the curious aspects of the story we heard today from the Gospel of Mark is the disagreement among texts. We read in this version of the text that Jesus “was moved to pity” for the leper—but the Greek word there is an intense one: a churning of his insides, his stomach wrung as one twists a wet rag, pressing out the tears and sighs of empathy. Scholars suspect that even that intensity reflects another word they find depicting Jesus’ reaction to the leper in some of the most ancient versions: when the leper knelt before him, Jesus, it says there, “was angry.” Now, one of the premises of biblical scholarship is that the more difficult reading is likely to be the older, since scribes are more likely to have softened statements and brought them into conformity with what is affirmed about Jesus—his compassion for the outcast, in this case—than they are to have turned a comforting account into a shocking one. Given that, this startling claim of Jesus’ anger is likely to be the original. Remember that the Gospel of Mark is an edgy and violent text in which Jesus is often abrupt and sharp; this depiction would fit with how he is known in the rest of the Gospel.

Now, this story is paired today with the story of another leper, Naaman, which also turns out to be an account in which, at the crucial moment, there is a flash of anger, but this time on the part of the one to be healed. In fact, an episode of damage control is depicted, in which Naaman’s servants crowd around him to cajole and to flatter and to steer him into doing what they know to be best for him in the long run, which he refuses at first even to consider. Our work this morning is to wonder together what is being conveyed to us by these depictions of volatility.

Naaman, of course, is easier to understand. Not only is there the humiliation of his disease, which ravaged his self-esteem and interrupted his career, there is also the discomfort of the journey and the awkwardness of the interview with a foreign king, with all the paranoia of the affairs of state. Then there is the failure of this unknown healer even to show his face for the cure, coupled with the instructions that Naaman dip himself seven times into some muddy stream in a strange land in a public act of defeat and neediness and shame—these two things seem almost designed to inflame Naaman. At that, Naaman goes over the edge, and in an explosion of raging pride, he states that he will do nothing, nothing at all, rather than this. “I thought that for me”—note those words!—“he would surely have come out. Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel?” This is one of the most delicious depictions of self-destructive pride in all Scripture.

Now, in spite of this ugly outburst, Naaman must have been, in his own way, a man people loved. Everyone in this story, with the exception of the Israelite king, tries to help him. Most telling of all is the intervention of his servants at this point, who know him well and shrewdly point out that he would have been willing and ready to do a difficult thing, so why not try this easy thing? And Naaman, like so many who are ashamed of the rage they struggle to control, is humble after his fury and submits even to the words of his servants. That, of course, turns out to be his salvation.

One thing he says, though, catches my attention. Naaman says he expected Elisha to come out and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God and wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprosy. Naaman not only wanted respect shown to him, he thought himself eligible to witness an invocation of divine power—and he wanted this done, not by him, but for him. More gently said: there is in Naaman a spiritual curiosity, perhaps akin to fear, from which he prefers to observe prayer and to purchase its power, rather than engage it. It might well be that his eruption of anger is also the dust he throws in the air to cover his terror at being expected himself to undergo alone this sevenfold submersion of himself in the Jordan which will be for him the ritual invocation of this deity who holds healing in his wings. Perhaps Naaman knows his weaknesses and liabilities all too well, and hardly wishes to attempt what he dare not believe he can achieve.

But if this is Naaman’s anger, what is Jesus’? There is a wheedling diffidence to this leper, who does not ask directly to be healed, and who places all the responsibility on Jesus’ shoulders—“if you choose, you can make me clean.” Some might hear a manipulative whine in that, even a slight casting of doubt on Jesus’ willingness, let alone ability, to act. We might think Jesus’ flash of anger is at that self-deprecation, by which the beggar attempts also to entangle the giver. The tragic vision of that leper is of the arbitrariness of compassion, entirely dependent on the whim of those able to offer it. Jesus’ response—“I do choose”—is also proclamation of God’s unalterable good will towards us. He shoves aside—yes, even angrily repudiates—any pretence that God’s intention to heal and restore the world is an arbitrary capricious on-and-off practice. This irrevocable investment of God in the fulfillment of Creation is not something to wheedle over, to pretend to discover anew day after day, so that our own commitment and effort and risk are avoided with the shrug that God might not be in the healing mood at the moment. Should such blasphemy not evoke anger?

Perhaps, though, what lies behind the leper’s words are years of disappointment and failed cures. Perhaps Jesus is seeing the hardened despair that has grown up around the physical impairment, deforming the soul, a means of coping that the man is powerless over because it is invisible to him. Then Jesus’ anger is comparable to that of the fierce manifestations of the Buddha, with rolling eyes and bared fangs and raised fists, depicted in Tibet. Moments arrive when the most compassionate act is the ruthless cutting through of delusion. The self-pitying lie, the self-excusing evasion, the self-deceiving defeat must all be eradicated if the true horror and the true pity and the true glory are to be known. Everything that corrupts and covers over and distorts and occludes the soul, as leprosy the body, must be scoured away, leaving tender reddened flesh, fresh as the skin of a child. Jesus’ anger is at all that blocks off the human ability to feel the world, to move through it with joy, free to hold and handle anything as it is, in the company of fellow pilgrims, to whom all things are lawful, in order to give thanks to God for all things.

This is why here also one thing stands out for me. Whatever the turbulent emotion that swept through Jesus, he touched the man. He knew no words would suffice: to be healed from leprosy is to be touchable again and to be embraceable again—and that means to be lovable again. No word could convey what the man hoped to know about himself. Nor could the tap of a single finger make the point. Only as the palms of Jesus’ hands cupped his shoulders and clasped his neck and stroked his cheek and handled the body that had been the man’s burden and barrier could the leper begin to realize that he was released from all that had defeated and isolated him.

Then we are told Jesus drove him away with a stern warning. Ruthless language still dominates. Jesus expels the man from his company in words also used to describe the chasing away of demons. The man is to return, to restore himself in a cleansing ritual, to participate in the routines of worship and work, saying nothing to anyone. As his disease had isolated him, his cure must integrate him. To be as exceptional in his bliss as he was in his curse is no cure. From now one he is to be normal, indistinguishable, even dull.

Here finally the two stories meet, because in each case the anger is expressed over what stands in the way of being normal and right-sized. This is what Naaman rejects and this is what Jesus restores. Naaman is offended that Elisha will not treat him as a dignitary and speak wonder-working words over him; Jesus commands the healed leper to say nothing to anyone. In both cases, the miracle worker refuses to call attention to the work. Naaman resents the mundane act of dipping himself seven times in the river; Jesus demands the leper go through the normal prescribed rituals of sevenfold sprinklings and bathing and sacrifice. In both cases, they are to do something nonremarkable and undistinguished.

Here is the crux of the matter: whether or not we also can move from our isolating fear, expressed as arrogance or diffidence, into the simple flow of the stream of our life, content to find healing in our mundane muddle, doing simply what has been given to us to do. A baptism in the Jordan represents willingness to conform to the human pattern, to undergo the gentle bondage of our days, whether it is Naaman dipping himself alone, or Jesus bowing before John the Baptist, or every one of us who must one day enter the deep river to cross over into the Promised Land. And we are all each other’s Jordan: turbulent brooks, not spectacular rivers. The life given to me to live, made up of all I know and feel and do, and of every person I interact with, is clogged with silt and refuse, poisoned by what I hoped to get rid of or what I hoped to grow by. The river I am to dip myself into is startling in its abundance, unpredictable in its currents, endless in its beauty, relentless in its heavy strength. The stream of my life in which I am to be cleansed buoys all the friends I disappoint or support, all the colleagues I trust or avoid, all the family members I despise or adore. The Naaman in us, who wishes things were fixed for us, resents being asked to step into that stream. Why can’t there be an incantation and a hand waved over what infects us, so our shames can be cured through no effort on our part?

In spite of our preferences, the Word of the LORD is that, if we are to be healed, we are to “dip our self seven times in the Jordan,” not wave our hand through the water once or twice and shake the drops off, but plunge in over our heads seven times, not in the glorious rivers of our fantasies, rich with prestige and legend, but in muddy brook in our backyard. When that is what is asked, we quickly think we have better things to do. We would prefer to have it solved before we engage. We want to know the cure is guaranteed if we only manage to enter the river twice. But can we do, not some great thing, nor wait to have great things done for us, but this simple thing that is before us?

How one endures life cannot be prescribed by one person to another; no one can say to another, “your trials are good for you.” Each one of us, though, must ask “what I am undergoing, what I have bound myself to, as drab, dull, sullen, and hurtful as it is—is it being lived for my good and for the good of all God’s creatures who are at my side? Can I dip into it, simply doing the next right thing, not once, but over and over, listening to the guidance of those I am with, searching for and repeating what cleanses and soothes and restores, and by doing that find there my own healing?” I cannot speak for you, but I will dip myself seven times, even seventy times seven, in the Jordan of my life, because I need to be healed, and it is only within my life that my life can be healed—anything else is avoidance.

It is the person next to you who needs to know you are kind; the person in front of you needs to know you are compassionate; the person behind you needs to know you are courageous—not those we would prefer to honor, but those at hand. It is the person you have supper with that needs to know your are generous, and the person you have breakfast with that needs to know you are patient. The person you stumble across in the street needs to know you are just, and the person who provides for you needs to know you are grateful. And you will become, having plunged seven times into your Jordan, kind, compassionate, courageous, generous, patient, just, and grateful.

Of course, the humility of dipping our self into our own Jordan is nothing other than the Christlike life, who did not think equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself and took on the form of a servant. Jesus was even willing to be his own Naaman, not only by lowering himself into the Jordan, but by entering over and over the grief and ignorance and arrogance of his day, pouring himself out for reconciliation. Our faithfulness to our circumstances, our patience to serve the healing of the situation we are in, is how we follow Christ. In doing that, we imitate the One who, even now, even today, even here, takes on the form of bread and wine when we gather to give thanks, so that we remember, not only that we are his followers gathered about him on the night his life is handed over, but also remember that he gave himself for us, and still does give himself in the simple mundane implausible and unworthy form of wine and bread.

But our imitation of Christ is only possible with his blazing ferocity inside. If we love because he first loved us, then we must love as he first loved us. We ourselves must ignite with outrage and reach out and cry out, “I will touch, not only seven times, but uncounted times, because distance and contempt is not what we were put here for. I will handle what others might think is despicable, because God made all things good. I will hold closely in my arms and gently protect what I have taught myself to resent, because God can make all things new—even my leprous self, even my crucified, dead, and buried self, who has descended into hell.”

So may we trust that, as we submerge into a death like Christ’s, so we might also be raised in a resurrection like Christ’s, restored to a freshness like youth and made clean, fit for the service and praise of God, whom we adore as the deep Wellspring of our life, and who is Eternal Source and Only-begotten Word, and Life-giving Spirit, one God, now and forever.